May 26, 2013

The Conservative Reform Movement Has Little to Do With Policy

I ain't got no Nobel Prize, but I'm going down guns blazing
Paul Krugman and Mike Konczal team up again me and Jonathan Chait to argue that, despite mine and Chait's assertion of a conservative reform movement, there isn't much meat on their policy bones.

There's something to that as far as the specific policies they mention (climate change, the danger of inflation), but I think they're rather missing the point.

You see, whether some policy is labeled "liberal" or "conservative" is a rather fluid thing. As people have pointed out a gazillion times, Obamacare is basically indistinguishable from Bob Dole's 90s healthcare plan, developed by the Heritage Foundation and first passed by Mitt Romney. Yet the minute people associated that set of ideas with Obama, average Republicans instantly created an iron-hard belief that Obamacare represents the death knell of American freedom, and rearranged their policy views accordingly.

The problem with the conservative movement isn't that mainstream Republican policies are all insane (they are), it's that the party has completely lost its shit. It is "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." Taking the debt ceiling hostage, for example, is not the action of a conservative party. It's the action of an extremist party, willing to risk economic Armageddon for trivial policy changes.

Honestly, to a large degree the problem is today's Republicans don't believe in the American system. They're unpatriotic.

This is, I think, due to the conservative media ecosystem and the perverse incentives of minority parties in the US constitutional system. Conservative media is ruled by liars, con men and charlatans who actively profit from having Democrats in power, and who whipped the Republican base into a seething frenzy after the election of Obama. Matters of policy have dissolved almost completely into the froth of tribal resentment and Obama hatred, which produced a huge class of new Republican house members who were slavering to attack the president with whatever tool was closest.

The problem with this is that Obama has left precious little policy space for Republicans to mark out their separate territory. Ezra Klein put this in an interesting way recently:
If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that’s not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I’ve written before, is that President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.
This is a pretty good description save for the laughably ridiculous idea that Barack Obama has ever even thought seriously about anything below about a 4. If we set up a possible scheme of universal healthcare plans, starting with a UK-style complete socialization of the entire healthcare sector at 1, moving through single-payer at 2-3, Obamacare + public option and/or Obamacare + Medicare buy-in at 4-6, and Randcare (i.e., every man for himself and devil take the hindmost) at 10, then Obamacare as is sits at about a 7-8.

But in any case, as Ezra says, the Democrats have set up shop across almost the entire policy spectrum. There's almost nowhere sane for a Republican to sit and still strongly differentiate himself from the president, which is absolutely critical to survive in today's GOP.

The president seems to have a genuine belief in bipartisanship for its own sake, and keeps moving right and right, and right some more, in an effort to meet Republicans halfway. It has failed every time, for the simple reason that everything Obama touches turns to ashes in the Republican mouth. (I don't know that Obama would have had more policy success if he had stuck more to the left, since moderate Democrats were his biggest problems in 2009-10. But all that outreach to the right certainly got him nothing from Republicans.)

So, as far as I can tell, the Republican Party has a social problem, driven partly by crappy elite pundits, partly by an extremist and nutty base, and partly by the fact that Obama won't leave them any non-crazy policy space to call their own. (Interestingly, this suggests that the project of folks like Bhaskar Sunkara to drag American politics to the left might help Republicans become less crazy by dragging Democrats off native Republican turf.) The project of "reformish conservatives," as I see it, is about creating a new Republican discourse that 1) is capable of engaging with normal knowledge delivery systems, eg science, and 2) doesn't think Democrats are Satan incarnate. If they succeed (and let's be clear, I wish them the best of luck, but they probably won't), then a policy realignment will happen almost without effort.

Because if there's anything the Republican base is good at, it's forgetting what happened five minutes ago.

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